We're still in a period adjustment right now, which is giving Fringe a slightly deflated feel after the superlative dual-Olivia storyline. Recent weeks have been about accumulating knowledge and cementing emotional foundations, ready for the show to tap-dance all over it. But we're not quite there yet, and "Concentrate And Ask Again" was another hour that, while largely more enjoyable than "Reciprocity", likewise suffered from a feeling a perfunctory plot was in support of a need to deliver information for future pay-off.
There was another outlandish investigation this week, with Fringe Division called in to trace a bomber who targeted a pharmaceutical scientist with an exploding doll that released a blue powder that immediately turned the poor man's skeleton to dust. Suspicion soon fell on a former US marine with a grudge against those responsible for experimenting on his colleagues (as part of "Project Jellyfish"), which ultimately resulted in the stillborn death of each subject's future children. Aiding the search was Simon (Omid Abtahi), a reclusive man who was given Cortexiphan by Walter (John Noble) back in the '70s; a fact that's been hidden from authorities because Simon didn't actually complete the trial. Simon, now blessed/cursed with the ability to hear people's thoughts, which is an especially incapacitating skill in crowds, found himself bonding with fellow guinea pig Olivia (Anna Torv), who persuaded him to help them interrogate their powder bomber, after he was caught but fell into a coma.
There was much to enjoy about "Concentrate And Ask Again", even thought it stuck to a largely predictable formula with its main storyline about finding and thwarting a gang of bombers turning a bone-destroying powder against its creators. The fact something that sounds that bizarre sounding can be considered predictable is, I realize, amusing on the surface. But it wasn't really the A-story that worked about this episode (beyond the wonderfully gruesome visual of victims snapping and crumbling into floppy skin sacks), it was the decoration around the edges. In particular, Simon was a really engaging character, in a story that treated the ability to read minds in the most plausible way I've seen on sci-fi in a very long time.
We're so used to seeing telepathic characters on the likes of Heroes and True Blood, but I applaud Fringe for making you realize just how impossible it would be to live with that ability. The aural effect was also very nicely handled (especially the weird pre-echo of spoken dialogue), and Abtahi's sweaty, jittery performance really sold the trauma of his character's daily existence. Simon's kinship with Olivia (whose mind he can't read) was also very sweet, with her insisting he should risk asking a girl he's noticed out on a date, even if he eavesdrops on some disappointing thoughts from her. Even better was Simon's upsetting insistence Olivia's wrong to be optimistic about him and his condition, because it's just impossible to live in a world where everyone's an open book. I hope Walter creates some kind of psychic dampener for Simon and he's brought into another adventure one day, although I suspect the extremity of his debilitation was partly to ensure Fringe can't go knocking on Simon's cabin door every time they need to question a suspect!
We also had some significant movement on "The First People" book, with Nina (Blair Brown) noticing that each international copy's author is an anagram of Sam Weiss (Kevin Corrigan), the "bowling alley mystic" who helped Olivia get over her mental block in early season 2. This was a reveal I've heard a few people correctly predict, from those fans who remember Sam's unexplained role in the show last season, but it was still nice to get that confirmation. But I'm still confused about the explanation Sam gave for the "doomsday device" that has been excavated and assembled by Massive Dynamic; the fact it can create or destroy realities requires huge suspension of disbelief, which I can manage, but it's more the fact the machine's attuned to Peter (Joshua Jackson.) Why? Is it because he's spent the most time in both universes? Also, Sam's warning that Peter can be used to destroy a reality based on which Olivia he loves the most, while a brilliant way to give this grand dilemma a personal touch, doesn't make much sense to me at this point.
Overall, "Concentrate And Ask Again" has much to recommend it, mainly in the smaller moments, subplots and subtleties: like Simon (a man of Arabian descent) being the one thwarting terrorists, or Olivia getting to wear the kind of elegant dress that Peter clearly appreciated seeing Fauxlivia in. And, of course, Simon's reveal to Olivia that Peter still has feelings for her doppelganger nicely set up what should become a love-triangle with consequences that extend to the destruction of an entire universe itself. It's Valentine's Day next week, and in the worlds of Fringe that could be a catalyst for Armageddon!
written by Graham Roland & Matthew Pitts / directed by Dennis Smith / 4 February 2011 / Fox